What does he do for an encore?

It has been difficult for Mids' Vela to live up to highlight play against Irish

Navy Football

November 13, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

How does an athlete live up to a single play that defines a career?

It has happened to others, and this season, this week, it is happening to Navy linebacker Ram Vela.

One year after delivering a flying sack of Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley on a crucial fourth-down play in the fourth quarter of Navy's streak-busting overtime victory in South Bend, Ind., Vela is hoping to get another chance.

But will it happen when the Midshipmen play the Fighting Irish on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium? Will it happen this season, when Vela's role has been reduced by injuries and Navy is using more nickel formations?

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly reported that the Navy football team has never beaten Notre Dame in successive years and that the Fighting Irish have lost only two games in the series. Navy has beaten Notre Dame in successive years three times, most recently in 1960 and 1961. Notre Dame has lost 10 games to the Midshipmen.

Will it ever happen again?

"That's a tough question," Vela said after practice Monday in Annapolis. "To get another feeling like that, that was such a unique feeling. I've never felt anything in my life like that before."

That play became part of the program's lore and made the then-sophomore from San Antonio one of the most recognizable Midshipmen because of the number of people who saw replays of it, on both television and YouTube.

"It's definitely kind of something that you don't think is going to happen to you," Vela said.

At the time, Vela recalled: "I knew it was a big stop. I knew it was a game-changing play, but I didn't really think it was going to set up everything that was going to happen in the game."

In truth, Vela was more interested in making up for missing a chance to sack Sharpley a series or two earlier.

"For me, I guess the best way to describe it was just redemption," Vela said. "You don't get a second chance. I got that opportunity. I had made probably the biggest mistake of the game. What did I have to lose? That was the internal motivation that got me to do something I probably would never do."

Though the play lives on in cyberspace, Vela has a hard time recalling the particulars.

"It's like a blur in my memory," he said. "The most vivid image I have is being parallel to the ground thinking, 'How the hell did I do this?' "

What does Vela remember the most?

"The last solid memory of the game was at the end of the game. I was so happy, I threw my helmet in the air and I lost it," he said smiling. "I don't know what happened to it. By the time I got in the locker room and was putting my equipment away, it was like, 'I have no idea where my helmet is.' Somebody's got it hanging up on the wall."

In some ways, the play put expectations on the 5-foot-9, 193-pound Vela to become one of the team's defensive playmakers this season.

It hasn't quite happened. After moving from cornerback to outside linebacker and playing in all 13 games last year, starting the last nine, Vela finished tied for sixth on the team in tackles with 57 while subbing for an injured Jeff Deliz. Vela has split time with Deliz this season, missing two games with injuries himself and making only 22 tackles.

"I think he's grown a lot from a year ago," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said yesterday. "Making that transition at the time that he did, midway through the season and doing the job he did without any experience, I think he did a heck of a job. I think he's gotten better with the experience of last year, got stronger in the offseason. I expect him to make some plays Saturday."

Vela, who tied his career high of nine tackles against Notre Dame, said he isn't discouraged.

"I definitely know I have, but every guy who has played on defense this year has improved so much," Vela said. "My playing time's been limited, but it hasn't bothered me because we're winning. That's all you hope for."

Come Saturday, Vela is hoping to be part of the first Navy team to beat Notre Dame two straight years in a continuous series that dates back to 1927, with the Fighting Irish losing only twice. As big as the Army game has become in his three seasons, the game against the Irish holds its own special place for Vela.

"When I got recruited, that was one of the biggest recruiting tools," he said. 'You're going to be playing Notre Dame in front of 80,000 people. I lived it. I was there. We won. That was one of the things coming out of high school, being part of the team that beat Notre Dame. To actually accomplish it just makes this whole trip, being at the Academy is just worth it. Regardless of whether the play happened."


Saturday, noon,

M&T Bank


TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Notre Dame by 3 1/2

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